First things first: sequencing and language comprehension skills may be related
Sequencing skills appear to be related to children’s oral language and reading comprehension abilities. For example, compared to children aged 8-11 with poor reading comprehension, age-matched children with good reading comprehension skills:
- perform better when sequencing events; and
- produce more accurate sequences, even when presented with stories that are narrated out of chronological sequence (Gouldthorp et al., 2017).
By understanding more about the relationships between sequencing skills and language, we can support children to understand spoken and written language, including children with with reading difficulties, language disorders (or both).
In this article, we provide five, evidence-based ideas to do this, with lots of examples.
Second: what does “sequencing” mean?
The word ‘sequence’ means different things in different situations. As a noun, ‘sequence’ can mean:
- a particular order in which related things follow each other, e.g. as in a non-verbal pattern, a cause-effect relationship, a procedure or a set of instructions; or
- a set of related events, movements, or items that follow each other in a particular order, e.g. as in an historical recount or a story.
As a verb, ‘sequence’ can mean:
- to arrange in a particular order perceptually, e.g. from least to most, smallest to biggest, shortest to tallest, lightest to heaviest, weakest to strongest, slowest to fastest;
- to arrange in a particular order conceptually, e.g. by value, function in a process, alphabetically, membership within a category, or hierarchy;
- to order things chronologically (i.e. by the order in which the events occurred in time); or
- to order things causally, e.g. by moving from simple cause to effect (e.g. rain-open umbrella), or through chains of cause and effect (e.g. the spread of an imported pest into a new environment, and its effects).
Third: concrete examples of school, work and life tasks requiring both sequencing and language skills
Sequencing tasks can be verbal or non-verbal.Verbal sequencing tasks require you, e.g. to:
- understand or process spoken or written language (e.g. to follow multistep classroom instructions or to follow and execute detailed written instructions for a task); and/or
- use words, sentences, and discourse-level language (e.g. monologues, conversation, recounts, stories, essays etc.) to order information in speech or writing (or both).
In speech pathology, we often work on language goals that involve sequencing tasks. For example, in a given week, I might help different clients to:
- understand daily routines, or school timetables;
- work on sentence order, e.g. subject-verb and subject-verb-object sentences;
- understand and use temporal cues like ‘first, next, and last’, ‘then’ and ‘finally’, or ordinals (1st, 2nd, 3rd) to sequence thoughts logically;
- understand, follow, and give multi-step instructions in complex sentences that include time-related words like ‘before’, ‘after’, and ‘while’;
- order, then narrate a series of pictures or points summarising process-steps (e.g. for growing a sunflower, or making a Lego Millennium Falcon);
- summarise and recount events in a story (e.g. in an Aesop’s fable or school-assigned novel);
- solve problems involving cause-effect relationships, making predictions, or weighing up options;
- summarise an historical event, like the months leading up to the start of World War II;
- outline a complex process, with multiple causes and effects, like the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster;
- explain a complex relationship, e.g. between interest rates and the value of the dollar over time;
- script difficult conversation, e.g. asking a boss for a raise, or appealing the decision of a government agency;
- plan complex tasks, like starting a business or attending a conference; and
- generate and write original texts, including stories, professional presentations, reports and proposals.
All of these tasks require both sequencing and language skills (oral, written, or both).
Fourth: Sequencing and language comprehension at the discourse level – the importance of building mental representations and situation models
When we read or hear a story, at least two things happen:
- we process the exact words and sentences, including the vocabulary and the grammar used, to understand what is being said (a ‘surface level’ or ‘lower level’ task) (Dijk & Kintsch, 1983); and
- construct a mental model or situation model of the characters, events, objects, places and actions described and the relations among them (a ‘higher level’ task) (Tapiero, 2007; Johnson-Laird, 1983).
Interestingly, the exact words and grammar of the text tend to fade from memory pretty quickly. But the situation model lasts longer (Graesser et al., 1997). For example, I can:
- remember a joke a friend told me many years ago, even though I’m sure my wording is very different to his when I re-tell it;
- tell people the order of countries I visited when backpacking in the late 1990s, including detailed descriptions of key events – like getting lost in a forest in the Czech Republic and accidentally trespassing onto a Turkish military base – even if I can’t remember exactly what I said to my son before school yesterday; and
- remember the stories (main characters, plot, setting, etc.) of Dr Faustus, Mansfield Park, Nineteen-Eighty Four, and Antony and Cleopatra – texts I studied over 25 years ago – even if I struggle to remember any of the words or sentences used in the book I just finished reading.
Fifth: Some people have difficulties constructing situation models or mental representations, including some people with:
- working memory deficits, who may struggle integrate information into a coherent model (although, counter-intuitively, the published research on this is mixed, e.g. Cain et al., 2004; Gouldthorp et al, 2017);
- developmental or other language disorders, that affect, for example, their ability to understand multi-part instructions and/or complex syntax;
- higher-level language skill deficits, e.g. difficulties making inferences or understanding common text structures like narratives (e.g. Oakhill & Cain, 2012);
- dyslexia or other decoding difficulties, which limits their ability to build a model about what they are reading because they can’t easily read the words; and
- hyperlexia, who may decode the words effortlessly but not build mental representations about what they are reading as they are reading texts.
Sixth: How can we use our knowledge of sequencing skills to boost language and reading comprehension?
Here are five evidence-based tips:
(A) Sequence information chronologically
For example, consider two versions of the same story:
Max looked down at his bag with horror after reaching down and unzipping it. He’d forgotten his calculator, and the maths test was about to begin. Max thought back to the night before, when he’d stayed up late, studying. He must have left the calculator on his desk. Even after sitting for a minute in class, Max was still out of breath. He’d had to borrow his Dad’s ancient BMX bike after missing the bus that morning. He couldn’t believe that he’d slept in on such an important day! He remembered how, before he’d pedaled off to school, he’d wiped off the cobwebs and pumped up the tires on the bike, all the while wondering whether he’d make it in time for the test later that morning. He imagined how embarrassed and irritated he would feel with himself tomorrow when he reflected on what had happened and what was happening.
Once upon a time, there was a boy named Max. One Thursday, Max stayed up very late to study for his Friday maths test. The next morning, Max slept in and missed his bus to school. He rushed to the shed and pulled out his Dad’s ancient BMX bike. He pumped up the tires, brushed off the cobwebs, and took off for school. Max pedalled furiously for over 20 minutes. He arrived just in time for maths. Huffing and puffing, Max sat down at his desk and opened his bag, discovering all too late that he’d left his calculator on his desk at home. Max’s day was off to a bad start!
The second version is much easier to understand and to sequence. Why? Its sentences and events are ordered chronologically.
(i) Sentences: Studies show that children aged 3-7 have more difficulty sequencing information when the information is presented in reverse order rather than chronologically (e.g. Blything et al., 2015). This is also true for people with language disorders. I suspect it is true for most people. For example:
- ‘He went to the beach before he went to the park’ is much easier to understand than ‘Before he went to the park, he went to the beach’; and
- ‘After he went to the hardware store he went to the supermarket’ is easier to understand than ‘He went to the supermarket after he went to the hardware store’.
For this reason, I recommend that parents and teachers should avoid using complex ‘before’ and ‘after’ sentences where the order of the words does not match the order of events.
Instead – following a great tip I learned from Dr Julia Starling – I suggest using:
- ‘When…then’ sentences instead:, e.g. ‘When you have finished your maths questions, then sit on the floor’; and
- temporal cues like: ‘first, next, then, and last’ to help children understand and express sequences of ideas.
(ii) Stories and other texts
The order in which events are presented in texts affects how easy the text is to understand. Both children and adults understand what they are reading better when events are presented in chronological order, compared to reverse or other orders (e.g. Ohtsuka & Brewer, 1992; Kucer 2010; Gouldthorp, 2017). Situation models of stories and mental representations of real life events are usually structured in chronological order (Radvansky et al., 2005). (Narratives often (but not always) organise events in the order in which they are perceived in real life.)
As with sentences, readers and listeners expect the order of events in stories to mirror the order they are experienced in real life: chronological and continuous (Zwan, 1996). For example, some studies show that reading speeds slow when readers encounter a time shift (either a flashback or flash forward) (e.g. Rinck & Weber, 2003; Speer & Zacks, 2005).
(B) After finishing a text, recap the first events
Events in stories become less accessible as more time passes in stories and other texts. Indeed, the first event in a chronological sequence is less accessible to readers than later events, even when the events depicted in the story are not presented in chronological order (e.g. Kelter & Claus, 2005). This might be one reason I find it hard to remember the events and other features of The Phantom Menace, although I remember the events of A New Hope clearly.* (Editors note for people who are not into Star Wars: A New Hope was made much earlier, but its events occurred later than the events depicted in The Phantom Menace.)
(C) Highlight “cause and effect” relationships in texts
With sequences, we often focus on linear chains of events: A then B then C, and finally D. But some researchers think that memory for events is better described as a network of causally-related (cause-effect) events (Tapiero, 2007).
During story reading, concepts with more cause-effect connections to other concepts are accessed more easily than concepts that do not have cause-effect relationships with each other (e.g. van den Broek et al., 1996; Lynch, 2008). Some researchers think that events may in fact be organised in memory according to their causal structure (rather than chronology) (e.g. Tapiero, 2007).
For example, compare these two stories:
Once upon a time, there was an old lady who lived in a cottage on the outskirts of town, on the edge of a forest. One hot day, there was a huge bushfire. As soon as the woman smelled smoke, she got down on her hands and knees, crawled out of her cottage and ran to the main road leading into town. With her mobile phone, she called the emergency number. Five minutes later, a fire truck pulled up outside the old lady’s cottage and a young firefighter jumped out. After a fierce battle, the firefighter put out the fire with her hose. ‘You’ve saved my house and the town!’ said the old lady to the firefighter. ‘Thanks mainly to you,’ said the firefighter, smiling. ‘I’m going to recommend you for a bravery medal.’
Once upon a time, there was an old lady who lived in a the middle of a large city. One freezing day, there was a huge bushfire. The circus arrived, and the ringmaster invited the old lady to see the shortest acrobat. The old lady decided to bake a cake for her grandson, Peter, who was in the army. The cat ran away from home. Just then, Jack brought in a bunch of flowers, a pet rock, and a plastic flute.
The first story is packed with cause-effect relationships. The second story is just a random collection of events. Two key points:
- The first story is much easier to remember and to recount, even though it is longer; and
- When you were reading the second story, did you find yourself trying to find/impose causal connections between the events? I did, even though I wrote the story to avoid cause-effect relationships!
Using cause-effect-based study tools, like elaborative interrogation and self-explanation, can be effective in increasing recall of events in both stories and non-fiction. You can read more about these free, evidence-based study techniques here.
A important caveat here: As with the first example story above, when it comes to story sequences, it is hard to separate comprehension of time from cause-effect relationships because cause precedes effect logically. Cause-effect relationships are less likely to be identified when presented out of time order (e.g. Briner et al., 2012; Fenker et al., 2005). This suggests that understanding time order remains important for causally linked events to be remembered.
(D) Provide and use visual supports
Children with difficulties sequencing events and understanding texts may benefit from using graphic organisers and other visual supports to understand them.
Common examples include:
- visual timetables outlining routines and activities in order;
- mini-comic strips with stick figures to depict main events in a story in order;
- text type scaffolds like this one that help children to develop and update mental representations of texts;
- Novakian concept maps for learning or testing knowledge of complex processes by creating active links between ideas. Here’s an example explaining the key processes involved in the mitosis of animal cells:
Source: Ian Kinchin, Visualising Powerful Knowledge to Develop the Expert Student, extracted from Christian Moore Anderson, 2019 (see full source link below).
- well-designed concept maps that explicitly sequence and link ideas with colours, lines, arrows, boxes, verb-links, and concrete examples. Here is a great example of a concept map used to explain Dual Coding, using left-to-right sequencing of ideas and clever graphics to aid comprehension.
Source: Oliver Caviglioli (see full link below).
(E) Use sequenced-based memory techniques to help children to build associations between ideas and to remember them
Sometimes, you have to learn things that are not naturally well-connected to each other, even arbitrary. You can use sequencing principles, including time-order, cause-effect and already learned sequences to help.
Hundreds (if not thousands) of years of memory research has shown that forcing sequential and visual associations between objects can you to help remember them. This can work with:
- related objects and concepts, e.g. cranial nerves from I-XII, world capitals, or the elements of the periodic table in order; or
- otherwise unconnected lists, e.g. passwords, shopping lists, and people’s names.
Alphabet and number peg systems are examples of using over-learned or automatically-named sequences to remember otherwise unconnected things. We have made a short video demonstration of a simple but effective number memory peg system here.
More advanced techniques like Buzan’s Major Memory System also use number sequences (linked to sounds) to help people remember long lists of information in sequences. We will cover this system in a later article.
Seventh, and finally: the clinical bottom line
Children vary in their sequencing and oral language and reading comprehension skills. Sequencing skills and comprehension skills may be related, but we’re not entirely sure how.
Many children have difficulties with both sequencing and understanding language, including some children with language disorders and reading difficulties. Parents, teachers, speech pathologists and others working with children can support children to understand spoken and written language by presenting information sequentially, explaining or narrating things chronologically, highlighting cause-effect relationships, recapping early events in sequences, using visuals, and using sequencing skills to help children to remember and link things together.
- Language disorders in children
- Following instructions: why so many of us struggle with more than one step
- Parents: teach categories to your child to ignite language development
- How to improve exam results: 9 free evidence-based DIY strategies
- Story Builder
- Subject-Verb Sentence Builder and Subject-Verb-Object Sentence Builder
- Comparative and Superlative Adjectives Workout
Principal source: Gouldthorp, B., Katsipas, L., & Mueller, C. (2017). An Investigation of the Role of Sequencing in Children’s Reading Comprehension, Reading Research Quarterly, 53(1), 91-106.
- YouTube video with Joseph Novak discussing Novakian Concept Maps.
- Christian Moore Anderson’s 2019 interesting book review of Ian Kinchin’s “Visualising Powerful Knowledge to Develop the Expert Student”
- Ian Kinchin’s book “Visualising Powerful Knowledge to Develop the Expert Student: A Knowledge Structures Perspective on Teaching and Learning at University”
- Oliver Caviglioli’s great website for graphic organisers and concept maps.
*Of course, the more likely reason I can’t remember the events of the The Phantom Menace is that it is a terrible film, and I’ve actively suppressed all memory of it!